‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1’ Review: Half a Movie, But a Good Half

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1'

Movie Rating:

3

The latest ‘Hunger Games’ sequel adapts half the final book into what can only be described as half a movie. Granted, it’s a pretty good half a movie, but you can’t help feeling ripped off when the credits roll. This is a product of greedy franchise filmmaking that ironically criticizes capitalist greed in a variety of lengthy stretched-out monologues. That’s some pretty delicious irony right there. Too bad it’s not deliberate.

When we last saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence at her most sullen), she found herself lovingly kidnapped by the underground rebel forces hoping to bring peace and economic equality to her land. The third film in the series shifts genres slightly, while still ensuring that ‘The Hunger Games’ remains one of the most complex and thoughtful YA blockbuster franchises on the market. The gently communist rebels live in a world of grays and minimalism, in stark contrast to the candy colored excess of the ruling class. Led by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), they’re also just as interested in using Katniss for propagandistic gain in their movement.

Along with gamesmaster-turned-rebel Putarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Coin hopes that Katniss will agree to assume the symbolic role of Mockingjay and lead the rebels to victory. After seeing the tragic rubble wasteland of a recent government attack, she agrees and stars in a few short propaganda videos as well as a single battle. On the other side of the spectrum, Donald Sutherland’s evil opulent President Snow has kidnapped and brainwashed one of Katniss’ love interests, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to star in his own propaganda videos begging for peace. It’s a highly symbolic political battle building towards an inevitable battle climax. Unfortunately, those climaxes don’t tend to arrive in movies with “Part 1” in the title.

It has to be said that ‘The Hunger Games’ remains one of the most intelligent tentpole blockbusters on the market, even in this anticlimactic movie that’s been needlessly chopped in half. With the games themselves now gone from the series (and the unavoidable comparisons to ‘Battle Royale’ along with them), the franchise has transformed into a tale of rebellion with its politics even more proudly displayed on its sleeve. It’s really nice to see an immensely popular teen franchise with an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian message as well as a strong female hero.

If anything, those elements are increased here, and the film benefits from that immensely. The series also continues its quest to fill the screen with the kings and queens of American indie cinema, who lend gravitas, realism and emotion to the pop hit much like a generation of British actors did in the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Lawrence continues to carry the film with ease, and she’s backed up gamely by the likes of Moore, the late great Hoffman, Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks. The film certainly has talent, class, darkness and truth that most examples of the genre can’t claim. Likewise, director Francis Lawrence (‘Constantine’, ‘I Am Legend’) shoots the film in an appropriately dark style with splashes of violence as disturbing and unheroic as the PG-13 rating will allow. Stand back from it all and ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1’ is a pretty impressive piece of work within the massive blockbuster form. The trouble is that just as everything starts to come together, the whole movie stops.

Sadly, there’s only about an hour worth of movie here that’s been stretched out to two endless hours so that the studio can get one more ‘Hunger Games’ flick to screens before closing the doors on the franchise. To pad things out, we’re treated to at least 40 minutes of Jennifer Lawrence staring sadly into the distance and characters constantly repeating the plot points and central concepts as if viewers hadn’t picked up on them the first time.

The movie also has barely any actual action. The spectacle is pretty much all limited to one battle and one heist, with another potential action sequence frustratingly staged off screen. That’s a major problem given that this franchise has thrived and survived on a mix of thrills and ideas that is woefully out of balance here. This is two hours of stage-setting for the climax that will happen in the next movie. Even if that leads to a fourth ‘Hunger Games’ movie that plays as two solid hours of climax and resolution, fans have been ripped off with this outing.

There’s far too much strong material here to completely write off ‘Mockingjay, Part 1’, but it’s a real shame that the studio made the decision to split the final film in half. The movie is an undeniably unsatisfying experience despite everything the filmmakers get right. The next movie had better make up for what went wrong here, otherwise ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise might have fallen apart just as things were getting interesting.

16 comments

  1. T.J. Kats

    I was worried about this when they first announced it this way. All of the books are between 350-400 pages if memory serves so to do two of them as two hour movies and then turn one into 4 hours really does a disservice. With that said my wife and I will still be seeing it tomorrow.

  2. I really liked the third book (hated the second book), but can’t figure out why they felt the need to divide it into two films (well, I know WHY, I just wish studios could see past the bottom line for the sake of storytelling).

  3. Drew

    Overall, I would rate this slightly higher. However, it’s difficult to argue with anything that you say. I’m in agreement with almost everything.

    • Only Catching Fire had any scenes shot in IMAX, which was used to emphasize the spectacle of the tournament. The director (same guy this time) made a decision not to use IMAX for Mockingjay because the story doesn’t have any scenes that make sense for it.

      http://www.wired.com/2013/11/mockingjay-preview/

      “In fact, we’re actually shooting Mockingjay digitally,” Lawrence said. “We went from film to digital – mostly because it’s a very different kind of story and most of it takes place underground and in District 13.”

  4. William Henley

    While this was my least favorite of the books, this was my favorite movie by far. I kind of like the new trend of breaking books apart into different movies – one of my biggest complaints of most book-based movies is that they feel rushed (Harry Potter 1, 2, and 4 are great examples of this). Breaking books into multiple movies gives the movie a chance to feel the worlds created, let events play out in a more suspenseful way, and lets you develope characters and story lines a bit more.

    That being said, this movie felt short, and they are far enough in the book that they could have finished it in a three hour long movie. Of course, I felt the same way about the last Harry Potter book – as much as I liked the feel of Deathly Hallows part 1, they were far enough in the book that I couldn’t see how they were going to draw the rest of the book out into another full length movie, but it worked quite well.

    I am eating up the three part The Hobbit.

    I expect to see more adaptations like this. it works very well in the form of story telling, movie-goers seem to be eating it up, and the studios get to have another cash-cow on a popular series and squeeze more out of a licensed franchise. It seems to be a win for everyone.

    Truthfully, I have been thinking for a while that far more books would do better as mini-series than movies to give the story time to play out (It worked VERY well with Dune, despite the craptastic special effects of the late 90s – Children of Dune looks significantly better), but I am all for multi-installment movies. I think they should go back and redo the Vampire Chronicles as multi-film installments or a mini-series (each book coould probably make three or four 2 hour movies or television shows, but instead we got the fantastic Interview with the Vampire followed by the craptastic Queen of the Damned that combined the second and third books – really sad because the second book is fantastic and would have made for a very enjoyable couple of movies).

    One thing that did bother me is how much the characters have aged since the first movie. This is only a year since the first movie, yet Prim looks like she aged about 6 years in the course of a year. I honestly did not notice her as Prim at first.

    Overall, I greatly enjoyed this movie. I was surprised with how well it was done.

    • Yeah, but I’m missing the point as to why they only split last books in series. Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games: the final book gets 2 chapters. If you, William (and presumably lots of people), like the idea of more movies for each book, why can’t they actually do that from the beginning. Hunger Games: parts 1 & 2. Catching Fire: parts 1 & 2, etc.

        • No. Read my question again. If they would split every book in two parts, that would equal even more money, right? I specifically wonder why they only split ‘final books’.

          • William Henley

            I believe that Harry Potter was the first to do it, because they felt like there was too much content in the last book to make one movie. Twilight shortly followed suite, because they saw it as a way to milk more money out of the last movie (they had already done the previous three). Hunger Games was already out, and Catching Fire I believe was already in the works.

            Not sure when The Hobbit was filmed, but willing to bet it was after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out.

            So pretty much, it worked well for Harry Potter, now other franchises are trying it, but the franchises that have tried it already had a couple of single-entity movies under their belt or in the works. But I would expect to see more and more of this in the future.

            It seems though that no one has taken the plunge to try it on the first entry in a series. My guess is that if you are introducing people to characters and story, you want your first movie to be completley self-contained, otherwise you risk loosing your audience. Of course, that is mere speculation.

          • Good theory about alienating your audience, William. I think you have found the solution. First movie should be self-contained, sequels can be split-up.

          • Julian, would you personally like to see more book adaptations split into two movies? It would definitely be interesting to see a studio try it, but I don’t know if the average movie goer would want to see every book adaptation split up and maybe the studios feel the same way. It would cost them more money and could be risky. I personally feel if they split every book adaptation in two, some audience members would grow tired of it before it makes it to the end. A lot of people would say, ” Now they want to milk every book!” I think they would call the studios greedy. Maybe it’s just like William stated. ” It worked for Harry Potter so we’ll do the same.” Splitting up the finale, aside from being a chance to make more money, can be sold to the audience as a more epic way to close out the story. They can get away with doing it once, but I don’t think it would work for an entire franchise. I still think when it comes down to it, it’s about $ dollar signs $. That’s just my theory.

  5. Lord Bowler

    I missed the Anti-Capitalist message here?

    I didn’t see one Company or Corporation mentioned in the books or films. If President Snow met in the Capital with the heads of the top Government-subsidized companies who were oppressing their “employees”, that would be Anti-Capitalist. But, he seemed to be more of a King or Dictator controlling everything through his agents.

    This was an Anti-Authoritarian movie where The Capital controlled all forms of production for the benefit of The Capital.

    I would assume that maybe Districts 1 through 4 may have been Anti-Capitalist, but the author barely even touched on those districts even giving the tributes from them very little back story, and most were killed off except for the chosen antagonists.

    That said, the third book was my least favorite, because the first half was pretty dull. I have one major issue with a major plot point of the second half of the book, and am curious to see how it’s shown on film. As for this movie, it was pretty good. It did cover enough for the audience to know that the games did a lot of psychological damage to Katniss without dwelling on it for 2 hours. It moved on fast enough so I didn’t get bored and ended at a good place.

    I think the decision to split the fourth book into two movies, despite the cash-grab, does seem to be a good idea. there is a lot of action still to come and now we’re past the “emotional” stuff.

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